Are Higher Fees for Immigrants a Plan to Stall the Number of Democratic Voters?
Is the Bush administration trying to slow down the surge in potential new Democratic voters by tightening access to U.S. citizenship through drastically higher application fees?
"For immigrants, the price of fully participating in our society would rise by 892 percent," says Larisa Casillas, coordinator of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition in Oakland. She says the citizenship fee "has been raised six times since 1989 when it was only $60."
"The very first thing Emilio Gonzalez said to us during the rollout of the proposed fee increases is that there's absolutely no politics involved," says Crystal Williams, deputy director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C.
Williams is willing to give "the benefit of the doubt" to the Bush-appointed director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, but, she says, "the effect of higher fees is to certainly slow down everything."
"Low-wage earning immigrants would have to save up longer to apply," protests Williams, "possibly put off applying for citizenship a year or more."
Agency officials want to raise the U.S. citizenship application fee from $330 to $595, saying more money is needed to improve its operations and services.
Applicants for legal permanent residency--the first step towards naturalization -- would be hit hardest, with the fee rising from the current $325 to $905.
Fingerprinting and biometrics will cost $80 instead of $10, in addition to other related expenses incurred by applicants; hiring a lawyer adds significantly more. Approval of the new fees won't require Congressional action, just a USCIS executive order after a period of public comment.
The dramatic fee increases "would put the American Dream out of reach of many immigrants," charged Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chair of the Senate subcommittee on immigration.
Recent immigrants are twice as likely to be poorer than are native U.S. citizens, says a study by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., although their poverty rates fell faster than for U.S. natives between 1994 and 2000.
"The USCIS is putting up even more barriers to integration," says Casillas. Congress, she argues, not immigrants, should fund USCIS operations, and with strict audits of its efficiency.
Some critics smell politics in the proposed fee increases because voting rights come with naturalization, and the foreign-born electorate is growing faster than the general U.S. voter population.
The number of foreign-born voters grew by 20 percent between the 1996 and 2000 elections, compared with 1.5 percent for all persons, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. Once naturalized, voter turnout among the foreign-born is high; 58 percent registered to vote and 87 percent showed up at the polls in 2000.
Most worrisome for the GOP, the party identification of the largest foreign-born group, Latinos, is 58 percent Democratic, 23 percent Republican, even though Latinos tend to be conservative on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, says a 2005 national survey by the Latino Coalition in Washington, D.C.
Detecting Democratic leanings among new citizens, Republicans in the '90s blasted the Clinton administration for promoting naturalization among immigrants through the Citizenship USA program.
President Clinton, they charged, was speeding up the citizenship process to create more Democratic voters. Now, Republicans could be accused of trying to slow down the increase of those voters.
"Immigration policy has practical political implications," concluded a 2001 paper by the Center for Immigration Studies, which found, for example, that "a generous Hispanic immigration has contributed to a solid Democratic edge with Latinos" the longer they stay in the U.S.
Laws barring non-U.S. citizens from public benefits have driven immigrants to protect themselves by naturalizing in large numbers.
The number of new U.S. citizens jumped in the last few years, from 6.5 million in 1990 to more than 11 million in 2002. About half of all legal immigrants in that decade had naturalized by 2002.
The naturalization rate among Mexicans rose from only 19 percent in 1995 to 34 percent six years later. Among immigrants from other Latin American countries, the rate rose from 40 percent to 58 percent in the same period.
Traditionally high naturalization rates among Asians and Europeans remained steady.
Today, some 8 million permanent residents (those who have been legal immigrants for at least five years) are eligible for citizenship, and they are applying in a hurry.
Citizenship applications nationwide soared 79 percent this January, compared with the same month last year, reports the USCIS. The agency attributes the spike to efforts by immigrants to avoid the proposed higher fees.
However, a self-protective response by immigrants to the national debate over immigration - as in the past -- is most likely also fueling the surge. Republicans are on the losing end this phenomenon too.
A 2006 Pew Hispanic Center survey, for example, showed Latino support for the GOP position on immigration dropping from 25 percent to 16 percent, with the highest loss of support coming from the foreign-born - future voters.
President Bush once declared that the Latino vote was "in play," but studies of voting trends show immigrants-turned-U.S.-citizens tend to identify with Democrats more than with Republicans.
The Center for Immigration Studies found that Latinos identified more with Democrats across all nationality groups, except Cubans, and across nearly all states.
"The gap is even wider among immigrant Latinos who have not yet become citizens. As many of these non-citizens naturalize, the political affiliation of Latinos is likely to shift still further toward the Democratic Party," noted a center study.